MOVIE REVIEW Grace versus nature

Terrence Malick explores the importance of reflection in the coming-of-age tale The Tree of Life

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Jessica Chastain, Laramie Eppler, Brad Pitt, and Tye Sheridan in The Tree of Life.
courtesy of merie wallace
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Sean Penn plays a man struggling to come to terms with complicated relationships and the modern world in The Tree of Life.
courtesy of merie wallace and twentieth century fox film corporation


The Tree of Life

Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain

Rated PG-13

Now available on DVD

“Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside me, always you will.”

The Palme d’Or-winning film The Tree of Life is an experiential collage of the internal struggle of a man, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn). The movie reveals the story of his childhood in the 1950s as the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) grows up to see the world and its stains and the present-day Jack tries to remember one of his brothers who has passed away. Nothing else about the family is revealed beyond Jack’s childhood, which is shaped by the juxtaposition of the concepts of nature and grace represented by his father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and mother Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain).

“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.… Nature only wants to please itself.… Get others to please it too … to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.”

The movie opens with the voice of Mrs. O’Brien, a source of kindness and delight for her children, reminding her children to love everyone and see the wonders in everything. One of Jack’s brothers takes after her — we see that from the way he picks up leaves and smells them, paints and plays the guitar, and avoids conflicts. The two characters are portrayed as saintly, innocent, graceful, and — presumably — fragile.

“Your mother is too good. It takes fierce to get ahead in this world.”

Loving his children no less than his wife, Mr. O’Brien is, in contrast, a strict authoritarian. He teaches his sons to fight and disciplines them, punishing them if they speak without permission or close the door too loudly. He is a man in control: of his family, his career in engineering, his music, his gardens, his own life. But once his career faces instability, we find out that Mr. O’Brien is also vulnerable.

“Humans need both grace and nature to survive.”

The characters are not pure symbols. They merely represent the most prevailing part of them. Mrs. O’Brien has nature in her as she fights, shows discontent, and although she appears to be the most faithful to God, she questions. Mr. O’Brien has grace in him, as despite all that he is, he still needs faith, love, and family. And we can see that even though he chooses to abandon his dream to become a musician he still keeps his passion for music. The characters are complex. And the depths of these characters make Terrence Malick’s (The New World, The Thin Red Line) original writing so powerful and captivating.

“You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when you’re not?”

The movie follows Jack’s development through his first exposures to other people’s sickness, death, and misfortunes. It follows him as he comes across lust and commits wrongdoings, as he questions and hates. Every subtle detail in the film brings it closer to perfection. Particular and distinctive cinematography is used to narrate with different voices — whether childhood perception or modern-day anxiety, wonders of natural creation or man-made structures. Simple moments like one in which Jack puts his hands in his pockets to mimic his father reveal so much intricacy — in this case, a sign of admiration along with respect for his father despite fear and contempt, and a child’s attempt to define his way. The casting is successful. We see Sean Penn’s face in the young, sullen Hunter McCracken.

“The world has gone to dogs. People greedy. Keep getting worse.”

Jack, taking after his father, is now an architect, a figure that seeks to control. He creates not only objects but also, as his father puts it, his own destiny. The way of nature continues to prevail in him throughout his adulthood, and so Jack continues to suffer the way he did as a child. His cynicism and the torn-up sense of being stem from the inability to see the world and live like his mother. As a result, Jack figuratively, or physically in the figurative world as rendered in the film, tries to find his brother to resolve the balance between the way of nature and the way of grace. Everything seems to fall into place once he finds his mother, brother, and younger self at the end of the film.

The Tree of Life approaches the movie-audience relationship in quite a novel way. It does not feed us a series of tangible information, but it communicates implicitly and minimally to leave room for thinking or reflecting. Namely, if you do not feel like extracting or synthesizing meaning out of everything by yourself, then the movie will be slow and unsatisfying in its intensity. The same goes with life.

Perhaps The Tree of Life does not tell you enough of a story to be called a movie. It does not answer any questions but instead raises them. The characters are constantly in the process of self-revelation, but so are we, and it takes courage to reflect enough to answer the essential questions, the meaningful questions. The film is not the sum of what it shows or tells, but there is that Gestalt effect, that greater meaning, which cannot be tracked in what you hear or see without contemplation. The Tree of Life is not to be watched or consumed at the conscious level but to be thoughtfully and passionately felt, related, and understood.